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I. Introduction: Relativistic Secularism in the Last One Hundred Years

A prominent Catholic theologian declared unequivocally in 2003 that “relativism has become the central problem for faith in our time” (emphasis added).1 The relativism to which he refers signifies two concomitant features: constantly changing patterns of reality, and the exclusive dependence upon human subjectivity as the source of all knowledge. This necessarily entails secularism, the denial of any transcendent reality and religious faith through which it is known. This kind of cultural context provides the background for synthesizing the meaning and role of philosophy in Blessed John Paul II’s idea of a Catholic university as expressed in his Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990). Associated here with this portrayal of philosophy are principles from two of his encyclicals, Veritatis Splendor (1993) and Fides et Ratio (1998). In the conclusion, I attempt to portray the manner in which these principles of John Paul combat relativistic secularism wherever it is found.

The cultural problem depicted above obviously is a theological and religious problem, but it is also a philosophical quandary. The necessity [End Page 114] of considering philosophy lies in the role of reason in Christian faith. “If the door to metaphysical knowledge remains barred, if we cannot pass beyond the limits to human perception set by Kant, then faith will necessarily atrophy, simply for lack of breathing space.”2 But what has happened to the modes of philosophy that conduce and support religious faith? The erosion has been epitomized by multiple versions of pragmatism, logical positivism, linguistic analysis, and postmodernism.3 As early as 1962, one commentator lamented that “we are now entering the age of counter-ideology in which the whole enterprise of philosophy is finally to be consigned to the outer darkness.” He goes on to claim that “the traditional quadrivium of metaphysics, epistemology, logic and ethics has been shaken to its foundations.”4 The traditional emphases in Western thought on God, nature, and reason as sources, foundations, and criteria for truth are abandoned.5

What remains is “an age of anxiety.” “The future of Western culture is put in question. . . . Indeed, the future of mankind is in question.”6 Features of philosophy developing in the United States during the past one hundred years reflect the deterioration: extremely technical language, a lack of relevance to daily human living, the diminution of independent reflection, a deficiency of social and political leadership, an increasing indifference to history, reductionistic orientations, a narrowing scope of reason, a certain malaise of the spirit, and the failure to capitalize on the values of Christianity. The substantial diminishing of an audience for philosophy can be attributed directly to several of these features.7 Not unconnected to this overall phenomenon is the radical professionalization of American philosophy in general: it is confined largely to universities, in which the participants confront difficulties in communicating with one another, much less the general public.8

The focus here upon the contributions of John Paul to the role of philosophy in a Catholic university is founded partially upon the principle that doing philosophy in a manner compatible with, and in conjunction with, the principles of Christianity and Roman Catholic [End Page 115] theology is a legitimate and potentially fruitful option. Also pertinent is a thesis contending that a vital dimension of this mode of philosophy lies in serious attention to its history. While there is no panacea for the redirection of Western philosophy, it does appear that some hope can be held out for the possibility that Catholic universities might be in a position to counteract widespread indifference to philosophy and to challenge the pervasiveness of relativistic secularism. In any case, there exists a dramatic opportunity matched by a desperate cultural need. What is John Paul’s ideal of philosophy in a Catholic university, and how is it related to this relativistic, secularistic cultural milieu?

II. Blessed John Paul II: Philosophy in a Catholic University

The Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, promulgated in 1990 by John Paul, is addressed primarily to the ethical and the intellectual ideals of a Catholic university. These two dimensions of the university are analyzed in more detail in two...


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